Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

From 22 September 2011 to 15 October 2011

Review by David Chadderton

After opening the season with last month's co-production with Out of Joint of Stella Duffy's Bang Bang Bang, for the Octagon's first home-grown production artistic director David Thacker returns to one of his specialisms, twentieth century American drama, with Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

The play is set in the cluttered home of history professor George and his wife Martha, the daughter of the principal, after they return from a late party, but Martha springs on George that she has invited new history lecturer Nick and his wife Honey to come back to their house. But the hosts play alcohol-fuelled "games" with one another and with their guests that begin with gentle ribbing and mild abuse and build up to vicious, hurtful duels with words that are likely to leave lasting scars.

There is no story to this play other than the strategic power struggles between the characters which Albee brilliantly manipulates into a battle that rarely erupts into physical violence but can keep an audience both gasping and laughing at the viciousness and acerbic wit of the attacks. Thacker has staged this verbal gladiatorial combat in-the-round, which focuses the audience's attention strongly on the cruel sports enacted before them. And what sport, from the strongest all-round cast seen on the Octagon's stage for quite some time.

George Irving's George is quietly manipulative—a little too quiet at times—rarely raising his voice but always appearing to be plotting and in control. However Margot Leicester's Martha is more than a match for him, as she can switch very quickly from dismissing any serious talk in favour of a good time to inflicting some very personal and painful cruelty. Kieran Hill really lives up to his early promise with a superb portrayal of Nick, and Tammy Joelle is remarkable as sickly, air-headed Honey in a part that can seem fairly insignificant compared to the others but which she turns into a memorable performance.

On Patrick Connellan's set of cluttered, mismatched furniture and piles of old books and newspapers, the first two acts crackle along at a fair old pace with edge-of-the-seat moments and lots of very funny, sparkling wit. The final act slows down considerably and seems longer than the others even though it is quite a bit shorter, which throws up a real danger of losing the audience at the crucial conclusion when they've been sat in a hot theatre for nearly three and a half hours.

But apart from that and some rather unconvincing violence, this production shows why Thacker has gained such a reputation for his productions of twentieth century American classics with this impressive, very enjoyable and superbly-performed version of Albee's brilliant play.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" runs to 15 October 2011